Do We Need to Be Certain to Have Faith?

In his new book The Sin of Certainty, Bible scholar Peter Enns says that doubt is healthy and uncertainty is a great way to deepen your faith.

Posted in , May 18, 2016

Doubt, faith, the Sin of Certainty

Bible scholar and author Peter Enns, Ph.D. never expected to have a crisis of faith while watching an in-flight Disney movie. But a few years ago, that’s exactly what happened.

The two-time Harvard graduate was flying home from an academic conference on the West Coast. Looking to relax, he’d decided to watch the film Bridge to Terabithia. In one scene the child stars are discussing their recent visit to church where fire-and-brimstone preaching had taken place.

The character May Belle, who’d grown up in the church declares, that “God made Jesus die” because “we’re all vile sinners.” She’s confident in this understanding because, “It’s in the Bible,” and if anyone doesn’t believe that, they’re going to hell.

But the other character, Leslie, says, “I seriously do not think God goes around damning people to hell. He’s too busy running [the world].”

The scene lasts less than minute, but it sparked uncomfortable questions for the Bible professor. He felt a need to ask himself : “What kind of God do you believe in, really? And why?”

That journey culminated in his latest book, The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our “Correct” Beliefs. Because God is so much greater than we could ever fathom or put down in words, Enns writes, "Rather than being the end of faith, these moments [of doubt] can introduce us to a faith rooted in trust rather than certainty." spoke with Enns about his spiritual journey and why he believes Christians don't need to have all the answers in order to have great faith.   

GUIDEPOSTS: When a person has a crisis of faith like you experienced, it can have implications for your family members, for your church relationships and, in your case, your career as a Bible scholar. How did your community deal with your crisis of faith?

PE: Each family is unique. In my situation it wasn't a problem because my children were virtually all adult children at that time and they process their own faith in their own ways. There was a context within my family [of allowing room for doubt and spiritual crises] where my process would not have created shock waves. My wife wasn't in the place where she felt that intellectual certainty is that important. 

GUIDEPOSTS: You mentioned in your book that people began to question your faith because of your uncertainties. How did you deal that?

PE: It depends on who it was. I experienced support from people who have been through it for other reasons. On the other side, people wanted to bring me down because certainty is absolutely central to their faith. You just have to go on with your life and not let them dictate the terms of engagement for how you look at things. But that’s hard, because sometimes you hear [“You’re losing your faith; you used to be strong, now you’re weak”] from people in church. How do you handle it there?

This is very difficult because these people mean a lot to you and you mean a lot to them. They do criticize you harshly because they're probably afraid of where you’re going and  there's an element of care for you in that kind of criticism. These kinds of journeys are difficult. It's very common for people to say, after a length of time, “I don’t know if I can stay in this church anymore.” That’s part of the cost I have to pay for maintaining this integrity. [My family and I] have left churches [and as a result] we've missed kids growing up. That’s not easy. That’s a sacrifice that some people feel they have to make. You have to understand that they’re not where you are [in your spiritual journey].

GUIDEPOSTS: On the one hand, you have Christians who feel that allowing room for doubt threatens faith and on the other you have Christians who feel like you do that doubt strengthens faith. How can these two sides come together?

PE: I think love and humility [is needed] for both sides. I read Paul, for example, and he talks about love and humility about as much as he talks about anything. Thinking of others as better than you and looking out for others and bearing each other’s burdens. What a great opportunity to do that for those who feel less certain -- to allow other people to have that sense of certainty, and likewise, right back at you. You’re not certain but that’s okay, we're going to co-exist without one group looking down on the other.

GUIDEPOSTS: How can we move towards a place of faith that is loving and humble?

PE: I can't give a formula, but for me, the more self-aware we are, the better we can value the other person and let them have their reality and not need to create it for them but to honor them.. If somebody says something that makes you angry right away that tells you something about what’s going on inside of you. I think people should be curious about what makes them tick, to be introspective, to see what [emotions are coming up and why we react to certain questions or statements the way we do]. I think if people want to learn to love people, it will happen. If you want to learn to be humble, it’ll happen. [You have to ask yourself:] Do you want it, or not?

GUIDEPOSTS: What is the impact that you hope this book will have?

PE: To encourage people to the notion that faith really is a journey. Sometimes we're more settled than others.  And when that journey is rough, you're not broken, there's nothing wrong with you. You’re not a second-class Christian citizen. It's a normal and positive thing. Around the corner is something else for you. However long that corner might take to turn, there is a corner to turn and liberation and freedom and joy and gladness and a sense of knowing God differently than you had known God before [are around that corner].  

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